AMN mentors Percussion Workshops

Meet Samba Percussionist Ami Molinelli

Are you ready for some rhythm? Our June 12 online workshop, Samba Syncopation, features guitarist Edinho Gerber and percussionist Ami Molinelli, who’ll share their insights into Brazilian music’s complex, infectious beats. We asked Ami—a respected educator as well as a performer—to give us a preview of what is sure to be an exciting hour.

You’re a San Francisco Bay Area native. What drew you to Brazilian percussion?

I grew up in Burlingame in a not-especially-musical family. My father played the accordion—he was semi-forced to, being of Italian descent—and that’s my earliest musical memory. My mother rented a piano for all of us to play, and it stuck with me. I took piano lessons until high school, when I quit. At UC Berkeley, I took a steel-drum ensemble class and an African drumming class, and that’s when I fell in love with percussion. 

For workshop participants who may be new to Brazilian music, how would you describe samba? How does it differ from other Brazilian musical styles such as bossa nova or choro?

Brazil’s earliest music is choro. Urban samba, which is both a dance and a musical style, evolved in Rio de Janeiro in parallel with choro in the early 20th century. It derived from samba de roda—roda means “circle” in Portuguese—which originated in Bahia, in the northeast, and ultimately from West Africa.

Brazilian samba is written in 2/4 time signature. The constant 16th-note motion that you hear in a shaker with the big bass drum, the surdo, emphasizes beat 2: It’s the heartbeat of a basic samba. The melodies are a mix of African, Indigenous, and European, often in call-and-response form. The widely known bossa nova is a variation of samba.

The original melody of “Girl from Ipanema,” by Tom Jobim, is very syncopated. One of my teachers, Jovino Santos Neto, once said in a lecture that the Portuguese lyrics to “Girl from Ipanema” have that syncopation while the English lyrics are all eighth notes and don’t reference the melody of the song!

In non-pandemic years, the last weekend of May is when San Francisco holds its Carnaval. How did you mark the occasion this year?

We had a very successful virtual Carnaval! Musicians from all over—the Bay Area, Santa Barbara, Chicago, Brazil—got together to present “Raizes do Choro e Samba” (Roots of Choro and Samba). It was a free online event in partnership with Red Poppy Art House, a small art gallery and music venue in San Francisco’s Mission District. 

What else have you been doing, musically, during the last 15 months of pandemic restrictions? 

I was very fortunate to receive a San Francisco Arts Commission grant to produce a live performance, Historia do Choro, which I’ve turned into a virtual presentation. I’m also promoting the Historia do Choro album. I’ve been recording from my home studio, and I did a couple of livestreams. Just last month I did my first few in-person gigs—at Rocky’s Market in Oakland, as part of their weekly music series, and at the Healdsburg Hotel. It’s been really lovely to be out again!

Watch the preview of the May 29 virtual Carnaval event, “Raizes do Choro e Samba”:

Watch the full video of the event.

AMN mentors Percussion Workshops

Meet John Santos, Afro-Latin percussionist and AMN mentor

From jazz to salsa to samba, the San Francisco Bay Area is a vibrant hub of Afro-Latin music—and one of the reasons is percussionist John Santos, who for 45 years has played an essential role in bringing the full range of Afro-Latin music to a wide audience. On October 3, John—a generous teacher, performer, and recording artist—will join us in an online conversation about some fundamental Latin percussion instruments: tumbadora (conga drum), guiro, claves, cowbell, and chekeré. You don’t need to own any of those instruments–or any percussion instruments at all–to enjoy and benefit from the workshop. Just tapping out the rhythms with John will be valuable for all musicians, percussionists or not. Moderator Dee Spencer will keep the conversation flowing and take your questions.

We chatted recently with John to learn more about his musical background.

John Santos

What were your early musical influences?

I was born in San Francisco in 1955 into a musical family. My grandparents on both sides were professional musicians—from Puerto Rico on my mother’s side and from Cape Verde on my father’s side. My parents had a large record collection—jazz, Cuban, Puerto Rican—and I also listened to whatever my older brothers and cousins listened to, from Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles to Motown and B.B. King.

In the third grade I began playing a clarinet that I inherited from my brothers. But by sixth grade I was more interested in percussion. I never looked back.

When did you start performing?

My dad had gone to school in San Francisco with some great musicians—Carlos Duran, Manny Duran, Eddie Duran, Benny Velarde, Carlos Federico. The Duran brothers and Benny Velarde went on to play with Cal Tjader’s Latin jazz band. When I was about 14 and playing congas, my dad took me to the clubs where they were playing. I even got to sit in with them. I was underage, but as long as I drank only Shirley Temples no one minded!

Tell us about your musical education.

I learned from Armando Peraza and Francisco Aguabella, two master musicians. [Peraza, who died in 2014, played congas and bongos with the rock band Santana.] I didn’t take formal lessons, but I learned an incredible amount just listening to their stories and watching them play. And in the mid-1980s, after 15 years of my bugging him, I finally persuaded Francisco to give me formal lessons.

I’ve also learned through teaching. Since 1986 I’ve taught at Jazz Camp West—which is now in La Honda, near Santa Cruz—for a week every year. It’s a magical week—nothing but music in the redwoods. Concerts every night. My kids, who are 12 and 15, grew up there. This year, because of the pandemic, we had virtual camp.

Can you recommend a good resource for Latin percussion instruments?

The Haight Ashbury Music Center, which opened in the 1970s, shut down earlier this year, but Gelb Music in Redwood City, is run by the same people and carries the same great inventory. I managed the percussion department at the Haight Ashbury Music Center throughout the 1980s, so I know it’s good!

Some of the participants in your AMN workshop may be new to Afro-Latin percussion. What do they need to know beforehand?

All they need is an open mind. The traditions that this music represents are part of an African legacy that is being reclaimed and retold. It was marginalized for many years, but it survived and evolved.


Learn more about John Santos on his website. The John Santos Sextet’s new album, Art of the Descarga, was released in August by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.